SC must decide on the 1991 law
A swirling dispute over the Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Masjid complex reached the Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday, at a time when tensions are at a tipping point over the recovery of a “Shivling” — as claimed by Hindu petitioners — in the ceremonial ablution tank of the mosque. Tension has been building for a year, since a local court admitted the petition of five Hindu women — who wanted the right to worship idols installed within the premises — raising a larger question around the 1991 Places of Worship Act, which froze the “religious identity” of any site of worship on the day of India’s Independence. It was further ratcheted up after the local court ordered a survey of the premises in April — opposed by the Muslim side — and reiterated its decision weeks later.
In the hearings on Tuesday — both in the SC and 800 km away in the Varanasi civil court — two things became clear. One, in cases involving sensitive disputes, legal processes must be firewalled from the weight of public opinion or emotion, and strictly follow established procedure. The top court was right in underlining that no worshippers could be stopped from offering namaz on the premises as a consequence of the lower court’s order, which the Muslim side said was passed without hearing its arguments. The Varanasi court also removed the person in charge of the survey for allegedly leaking details of the exercise. But the second, and bigger takeaway, is that the SC has to expeditiously decide on the mandate of the Places of Worship Act, which, prima facie, bars the kind of petitions that lower courts in Varanasi and Mathura admitted and heard over the past year. The case of the Muslim petitioners hinges on the 1991 legislation, meant to forestall attempts to follow the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid template and lay claim to places of worship through the courts. In the 2019 Ayodhya judgment, the court held the law protects and secures the fundamental values of the Constitution by providing confidence to every religious community that their places of worship will be preserved. The top court must clarify if this continues to be its position, and then communicate to all levels of the judiciary to abide by the decision.
This newspaper previously noted that an erosion of this law’s mandate can open a Pandora’s Box of religious strife, discontent and potentially, violence. The top court took up challenges to the law in 2020 but hasn’t heard it since. Two more petitions against it are also pending. The Gyanvapi Masjid dispute is building up to be a landmark case. The Hindu side believes the 1991 law carves out an exception specifically for such structures. The Muslim side argues that any survey is a violation of the law. At the heart of the dispute is a short but crucial three-page legislation. The court must take a call on it at the earliest.